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Ripening for a Change

Greetings WAC community,

God is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. – Psalms 1:3

They tried to bury us, not knowing we were seeds. – Mexican Proverb cited at the “Finding Common Ground” workshop of the 2017 Activists Mobilizing for Power (AMP) Conference of Western States Center.

My vision remains that we will end racism someday.  Just like the tomatoes in my garden are now ripening, I see the change toward ending racism ripening in Wyoming and around the country.  This may seem like a contradiction as violent racism increases, but what those acts are doing is raising awareness and people, whom I call bridges or gardeners, are stepping up to learn about our own implicit bias and what we can do to address racism.

Hope for my vision is hard to keep at times, with some denying that racism exits and others saying that we might lessen racism, but never end it, like Christians not believing in the Lord’s Prayer when we ask that, “Thy kingdom come.”  This past week, the 8thAnnual Native American Education Conference (NAEC) sponsored by the Wyoming Department of Education took place at St. Stephens Schools with a record turnout.  Following that I headed to Portland, Oregon to the 2017 Activists Mobilizing for Power(AMP) a bi-annual conference of the Western States Center that advocates for justice, equality and democracy.

Pre-publicity on a radio station in Riverton on the 2017 NAEC prompted the radio host to ask the organizer of the event why there was a workshop on “White Privilege” because there is no racism in Riverton. Prior to the two workshops on “White Privilege” that I led this week at the 2017 NAEC, I worried that few would come and that the few would be Native Americans skeptical about what I had to say.

I felt delighted when more than 30 attended the first one, mostly white, and people voluntarily sat on the floor after the chairs filled up.  At the second workshop, the turnout was nearly the same.  The discussions were great and Native Americans and people of mixed races who attended gave validity to my message.  Many signed up expressing interest in the Undoing Racism workshops coming up in September and October.

The first day’s workshop that I attended on Friday at the 2017 AMP conference started with the quote above and addressed how allies could best work with Native Americans – in short: “Understand the history of oppression since 1492, build relationships and be respectful of their desires.”

I became aware of “Poverty Porn,” i.e., telling stories of the poverty on reservations that may inadvertently be racist and justify the continued oppression.  It is easier to say what is bad about a place than about what is good.  We need to get the good stories out.

We also talked about the personal and organizational fears that we have about working with tribes, such as fear of rejection for being white, saying or doing the wrong things, lack of trust and not having the capacity to build the relationships and to follow through with a commitment.  We discussed the challenge in getting funding for building those relationships, as funders often seek quick unrealistic results.  Traditional grant funding may re-enforce the oppression or addresses the symptoms and not promote self-determination.  Or as what was said at the recent Wind River Economic Opportunities Gathering, “A federal grant is not economic development.”

My experiences this week give me hope.  The work is not easy, but the buried seeds will sprout and the fruit will ripen!

Fear not. Be bold. Do justice.


Chesie Lee

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